More on Mesoamerican archeology and the Book of Mormon

A year ago, Prof. Michael Coe gave a three-part interview on Mormon Stories in which he claimed there is virtually no evidence of any archeology in Mesoamerica that supports the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, this belief is pretty widespread — we have had several commenters come to M* claiming the same thing.

John Sorenson has been writing about this issue for decades. I would like to bring your attention to this open letter that he sent to Michael Coe on this issue.

To be clear: Prof. Sorenson believes that there are more than 400 clear “correspondences” between the Book of Mormon and the Mesoamerican cultural and archeological record. As Prof. Sorenson says:

Finally, I have a large book in the editing process that deals with these matters in greater depth. (The ninety-seven-page list of references includes twenty-one of your writings.) When it is in print, I will be pleased to send you a copy. It presents 420 correspondences between the text of the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican cultural patterns and archaeological sequences. On that basis, I maintain there is no alternative to understanding that the Book of Mormon (“Mormon’s Codex”) could only have originated from the hands of a native Mesoamerican writer and that scholars will do well to study it seriously, not flippantly.

I urge latter-day Saints interested in this subject to read Dr. Sorenson’s letter and to get a copy of his book when it comes out. I discuss more of Dr. Sorenson’s work here. I would be interested to see if Prof. Coe ever responded to Prof. Sorenson’s letter.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

37 thoughts on “More on Mesoamerican archeology and the Book of Mormon

  1. As I have written in the past, my witness of the Book of Mormon is a spiritual witness based on faith. I find Dr. Sorenson’s 420 correspondences interesting intellectually, but I don’t base my faith on them. It is of course possible that the Book of Mormon took place someplace other than Mesoamerica (although I doubt it, but we must admit it is possible). My point here is to take on the claim that there is “no evidence” of correspondences. This is simply not true. There is no “proof,” but there clearly is evidence.

  2. It would be nice if Sorenson would go on Mormon Stories also. It would be nice to hear from more faithful members on that podcast.

  3. Jon, I cannot speak for Dr. Sorenson, but I can say that there is a widespread feeling among many Mormon intellectuals that Mormon Stories is a “questioning” and even anti-Mormon forum. Dr. Sorenson’s participation could be seen as legitimizing such a forum, and I can understand why he might not want to be associated with it. (This is not to question the participation of believing Mormons like Dr. Bushman, btw — just a possible explanation for why people like Dr. Sorenson are not willing to take part in such a forum).

  4. The question is whether Mormon Stories really wants him. I think it is sad that Dehlin would interview Coe, a scholar that has not studied anything regarding the BoM in decades, and so is discussing from past knowledge. Dehlin didn’t just ask about general Mayan stuff, but asked him about Mesoamerica and the BoM. Clearly, Dehlin was prompting for such a response as Coe gave. Was this really to get an “expert’s” opinion, or just ratings, or as a method to help those confused about the gospel to finish walking out the door? There was nothing from Dehlin to prepare a response – John Sorenson’s response came via a request from his son, not from Dehlin. A program that sincerely seeks answers would already have in place the counter-argument. Instead, lots of time has passed since the Coe interview. Dehlin could have asked Sorenson, Brant Gardner, Diane Wirth, or a handful of other LDS Mesoamerican scholars. He didn’t. He hasn’t.

  5. According to Dehlin he has asked others but has gotten negative responses. He does a quality podcast, not perfect, but quality. I’m always disappointed by the FAIR podcast. One of the best ones I’ve heard on FAIR was the Sorenson response letter. Remember that Dehlin has done an open invitation on his podcast for rebuttals to anything that he presents. As far as I know no one will take him up on it. There was a believing bishop on recently though (although it was disappointing when he mentioned a stone that, according to Dr. Wiki, is most likely a fraud – one more reason to have someone that is actually knowledgeable on the subject).

    It would either be nice to have a podcast of the same quality format as Mormon Stories or at least have faithful people go on it. Neither is happening right now, so we are left with the more unbelieving people getting aired.

  6. Just one person’s opinion: I have listened to both Mormon Stories and the FAIR podcasts. I really like FAIR, and there have been a few Mormon Stories podcasts I liked (interviews with Bushman and Nate Oman, to name a couple). In my opinion, the Mormon Stories podcasts often promote non-believing perspectives uncritically and seem to push people to leave the Church and question the Church, rather than stay in the Church. But it is true that the Mormon Stories podcasts are longer and generally cover issues more in-depth.

  7. Yes, I don’t like all of the Mormon Stories podcasts either, but, they are of a higher quality, typically. I haven’t listened to FAIR podcasts that long (maybe 6 months) and I skipped the gay ones (not a topic that concerns me that much). But the ones on FAIR haven’t been that good, quality wise.

    So that is my gripe mostly, the actual quality of the podcast. I started listening to FAIR precisely because of many of the negative overtones on Mormon Stories. It would be nice to have all views represented though. My goal in life is to get at the truth, not to protect my own belief, but to get to the truth, if truth and belief overlap, great, if not, well, what do you do? It is unfortunate that it is hard for people to come together and really discuss these matters.

    I’ve been reading “Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy” and it’s been interesting. But we never hear from that vantage point either, it seems it is just assumed in the written literature that Joseph had multiple wives and that it shouldn’t be questioned. A good scholar should be able to show why they think that view isn’t true. I have a lot to read! I have yet to read “Rough Stone Rolling” and “In Sacred Loneliness.” I think that is one of the good things about the internet. It makes us reflect on our beliefs much more and question why or why not we believe. Takes a lot of work though.

  8. Jon, I like your approach. My personal approach has been that when people declare absolutes about Mormon-related scholarship they are usually wrong. For example, “there is not evidence that supports the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica.” This is simply false — there is evidence. But we also cannot say with any honesty that the evidence proves anything about the Book of Mormon. I believe the evidence about Mesoamerica and find it very compelling, but your testimony cannot be based on the evidence. The same thing applies to the DNA issue. As Ugo Perego said very well at the FAIR conference, DNA is a very complicated, inexact science when dealing with people living more than 2,000 years ago. You cannot say that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormon any more than you can say it proves it to be true.

  9. I agree, with the nuance, that D&C says (paraphrasing) study it out, ponder, pray, listen. Many times we skip the study part. So, I think the studying on the Book of Mormon beyond its text is important, otherwise are our testimonies mature? I would think not. I think my testimony is very immature, lots of work to do. Unfortunately many people “know” the things are true but they haven’t done the work so I think “believe” is a better word. I have hope, but I do not know, and, in my opinion, that is OK. To each his own I suppose, but it doesn’t make me feel better when people say they know things that they haven’t studied first. Not that my testimony is based on what others believe, although it helps when contradictions are minimized.

  10. Just a question for the scholars and the sceptics. Since no one can find any DNA connection to Jerusalem etc, has anyone done any research into Ishmael and his origins. Jerusalem was a very cosmopolitan city at the time of Lehi. Where might he have met Ishmael, since Lehi was most likely a trader and traveller? Is it possible that Ishmael and his family were of Asian origin? After all, DNA is determined thru the matriarchal lineage not the patriarchal lineage. Anyone know?

  11. Geoff, don’t hate me, but I’m becoming more of a skeptic about the Mesoamerican theory as I consider other lines of thought and research. As you note, my testimony isn’t dependent on any of this, though. I just don’t think it’s a bad thing if people have some different thoughts on this, especially since there is no current official position.

  12. Michelle, I would recommend reading Sorenson’s book when it comes out. Anon, it is not true that “no one can find any DNA connection to Jerusalem.” There is at least one haplogroup of American Indians that has been linked to people from the Middle East (Bedoins, interestingly), and two more that are linked to people in Asia with some very small presence in the Middle East. We don’t know what Lehi’s DNA was. Your point about Ishmael’s DNA is also valid, but again we don’t know what his DNA was either. As I say, DNA from 2600 years ago is a tough thing to prove or disprove.

  13. I would wager the reason Mormon Stories has a hard time getting believers on the podcast is because they aren’t treated very well. Why would someone participate in something that is subtly designed to criticize their spiritual, deeply-held beliefs, make them look foolish and put them on the defensive?

    The approach of Mormon Stories is disingenuous, and most faithful people with enough experience with them come to see that pretty clearly. If the basic premise isn’t entirely honest (even with themselves,) then there is no benefit participating in it.

  14. Actually, MRS’ Ishmael’s and MRS’ Lehi’s (Sariah’s) DNA would be important. We would need to know their family origin too.

    The Book of Mormon is strangely silent on any possible pre-existing populations when Lehi arrived. Sherem (in book of Jacob) is an interesting character, who is not identified as either Lamanite or Nephite.

    I think it likely that the Mulekites also intermingled with pre-existing populations because their language was so altered by the time the Nephites met up with them.

    It is mentioned that the Mulekites took no records with them as one reason for the failure to maintain their language, but was the language decay natural, or was it because they mixed with indegenous peoples?

  15. Jon, the “study it out” thing mentioned in the DC does not mean we need to study archealogy for years before coming to a testimony or knowledge of the truthfulness of the BoM. That would be ridiculous. Very little new world archealogy had been done in 1830. Mormon missionaries do not go into all the world to teach archealogy.

    I have to say that I _know_ that the Book of Mormon is true. And I came to that knowledge via a powerful communication from the Holy Ghost during my first reading session of the book while reading 3rd Nephi.

    Spiritual truths, and the knowing of spiritual truths, are not dependent on the physical sciences. The historical truth of the Book of Mormon and the Bible may be special situations in that they are intimately tied to the spiritual truths they contain.

    Physical proof of the existence of the Nephites is not needed to know that they existed. I am unaware of any conversions to the church based on hisorical or archealogical evidence. In fact, modern prophets have discouraged such, and have always told missionaries to ask investigators to pray for a spiritual witness, a la Moroni 10:4.

    God is very willing and generous to give confirmations and testimonies to those who want to know if the Book of Mormon is true, and who meet the pre-requisites he sets forth. Archealogical study is not one of the requirements laid out in Moroni’s promise, or mentioned as a prerequisite by any prophet.

    Yet, the spiritual truths in the BoM go hand in hand with the historical reality of the people of the BoM. You can’t have one without the other. If you get a testimony of the Spirit that the book is true, then Nephites had to have been a historical reality.

    There never will be proof of the BoM until Jesus’ 2nd coming with angels and resurrected beings, some of them Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites and Mulekites, who will then say “Yep, we really were Nephites etc.”

    We will see and hear the testimony of lehi, Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, etc.

    Jesus said that all mysteries will be revealed. So we will see Nephi’s Small Plates and Large Plates, and the Book of Mormon plates.

    Until then, faith, and testimony given by the Holy Ghost, are required.

    I sincerely believe that no one will ever get a testimony of the BoM via studying archealogy. Such study may provide -room- for faith, may provide -plausibility-, and may counter the antis’ claim that the BoM couldn’t be true.

    But if one already believes in a miraculous God, and already is familiar with the characteristics and attributes of the God of the Bible, then to him, the Book of Mormon is already very

    How many billions of people have believed in God and Christ, and been extremely blessed for their faith, without having first been swayed by archealogical “proof”!

  16. But if one already believes in a miraculous God, and already is familiar with the characteristics and attributes of the God of the Bible, then to him, the Book of Mormon is already very -plausible-.

  17. If you get a testimony of the Spirit that the book is true, then Nephites had to have been a historical reality. Well this is pretty simplistic, from a practical point of view it depends on how well the question was parsed with the Spirit, simple spiritual confirmation is not very nuanced.  After parsing this question extensively with the Spirit I have a very strong testimony that the BoM is the word of God set to fiction. 

  18. Bookslinger,

    Then we have the problem of is it your feelings or is it the Spirit per D&C. Even Joseph had problems deciphering the two (and Ballard gave a talk on feelings vs Spirit). We also have the problem, as mentioned by Howard, that we get the results but then how do we interpret those results? We also have the people that pray and get negative or neutral “answers” from the spirit, are we to discount their testimonies by the Spirit?

    No, I think we do need to study and read, ponder, pray, and listen. Even after receiving an “answer” we need to continue this process all our lives leaving an open and critical mind leaving room for more evidences when they appear. That is why I say “knowing” is not knowing in the true definition of the word, belief is a better word. I can know that I have good results when I am good, but the being good part is a belief, I know the results, I believe the conclusions. I know I feel a burning in my bosom when I enjoy a spiritual moments in the woods, the conclusion because of those feelings I do not know.

    That is why I am saying that I need to read more and learn more and continue a refinement of my beliefs.

  19. Of course we don’t discount the testimonies of others that conflict with ours. But we do believe that those people have to answer to God for their proclaimed testimonies, just as we do.

    I have my opinions of most of those testimonies, but that doesn’t matter. It’s between them and God.

    And Jon, belief may be the best word for you, but you have no right to say it is the best word for others. Others may indeed “know” in the fullest sense of the word.

  20. SR,

    If we don’t have a standard for the definitions of words then we can’t have a conversation because words become meaningless.

  21. I agree with Jon, it’s useful to discuss and define these things. I’ve lived my life by following the Spirit since 2003, as a result my testimony falls into the “I know” category.  But this is not the same as knowing something for you, nor is it to say that what I know is the only truth, there are many truths and what is truth for one level of understanding of the gospel may not be true at another level since the Spirit takes into consideration our knowledge and frame of reference custom tutors us level by level.  So I don’t exclude your testimony and I hope you will not exclude mine!

  22. Howard,

    I don’t discount people’s testimonies. I just replace the word “know” to “believe” when I hear them. And I don’t think that lessons other people’s testimonies or beliefs. I find the gospel to be beautiful, but I question a lot am questioning a lot right now. Some people are afraid to question if their is a God or not, I think it is important to, as some point in ones life to ask that question. What is the saying? Paraphrasing, an unexamined life isn’t worth living.

  23. Sorry Jon, I wasn’t implying you discount other’s testimonies, I question a lot as well and agree that an unexamined life isn’t worth living my comment was offered to the thread in general.

  24. This isn’t just about Coe. He is one voice in a crowd. I think Sorenon and the Maxewll Institute should just put all of their theories and evidence out there for peer review in the scientific community. Truth is truth and if the evidence is as compelling as many of us believe it to be we should have no fear that it will be vindicated by the non-Mormon experts.

  25. Friend, Prof. Sorenson has a substantial amount of work that has been peer-reviewed. He and Coe are friends and have been having friendly scholarly discussions in his field for many years now. I cannot speak to the Maxwell Institute, but I would be willing to bet that your claim that they do not put their “theories and evidence out there” is false.

  26. So I have a question for you guys: how do you interpret the general dismissal of BoM historicity amongst non-LDS scholars like Coe? Is it disconcerting? A head scratcher? Do you think more of them would find the arguments more persuasive (even as non-believers) if they spent more effort or put more sincerity into considering them? Or do you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be because God wanted it to be a test of faith?

    I suspect there is a wide range of views, but I’m wondering if the whole spectrum is represented, or if major players in apologetics have weighed in on this issue. (I’m not particularly well-read in apologetics.)

  27. Jon,

    In regard to knowing versus believing:

    I would suggest you read pages 32 and 33 of the current edition of Gospel Principles, chapter 7.

    From page 33:

    The convincing power of the Holy Ghost is so great that there can be no doubt that what He reveals to us is true. President Joseph Fielding Smith said:

    “When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even of the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase” (Answers to Gospel Questions, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith Jr., 5 vols. [1957–66], 2:151).

    President Smith also said, “Through the Holy Ghost the truth is woven into the very fibre and sinews of the body so that it cannot be forgotten” (Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. [1954–56], 1:48).


    Yes, some people only receive “I believe” kind of testimonies. And their testimonies may grow into “I know” kind of testimonies.

    Yet others really do receive “I know” kind of testimonies as described on page 33.

    I hope you can continue to grow your testimony from a “believe” to a “know” kind of testimony. Plus, I encourage you to be open to receiving a “knowing” kind of testimony directly from the Holy Ghost.

    The scriptures are true, including those parts about manifestations of receiving knowledge and testimony directly from the Holy Ghost.

  28. Trevor:

    Lack of slam-dunk proof of the historical reality of Nephites and Lamanites is no more disconcerting than:

    – there is no record of the Hebrews being in ancient Egypt, even though the Egyptians were excellent record keepers during that period.

    – there is no archaeological evidence of horse bones within the boundaries of the Mongolian empire, yet there is plenty of evidence that the Mongols rode lots of horses.

    – there is no scientific evidence that the man known as Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected after being executed by the Romans.

    – there is no archaeological evidence of a Garden of Eden, a universal world-wide flood, or that two cities named Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone from the sky.

  29. @Bookslinger,

    Well, if that is true, then I have never felt the Spirit like that. How do we know that it is not just feelings? I’m open to more knowledge, but sometimes I wonder how God could make salvation known to his children by something that could easily be mistaken as feelings. Not trying to demean your testimony, but maybe one day I’ll move from agnostic Mormon to full believing Mormon. Right now I’ll keep pondering.

  30. Bookslinger, so in other words, it doesn’t give you any pause…?

    I think that many of the examples that you list are good standards for evaluating how we interpret (lack of) evidence. Something like the Exodus, or a global flood, for instance, should have left mountains of evidence, yet there is none, which is why (as far as I am aware) most historians reject their historicity. A Garden of Eden (however loosely we explain it) or a resurrection? Well, those cases would arguably leave little to no evidence at all.

  31. “how do you interpret the general dismissal of BoM historicity amongst non-LDS scholars like Coe? Is it disconcerting? ”

    No. As Terryl L. Givens said in a lecture once, the problem isn’t with the historical reality of the events of the BoM. It’s with the Angel Moroni and the first vision. It has to do with the way the BoM came forth. There’s no way Joseph Smith could have translated, on his own, an actual ancient record – so if we in fact find signs that say “10 miles to Zarahemla” and “here is where the stripling warriors defeated the Lamanites” and an inscription saying “Jaredites were here” and the like – then that’s not so much proof for the Book of Mormon as it is proof that the Angel Moroni actually directed Joseph Smith to some gold plates and the JS used various types of stones to translate it.

    That itself is the unspoken elephant in the room. All the claims about “there is” or “there isn’t” physical tangible proof for the events of the BoM miss the point that, as Terryl L. Givens said (paraphrased from my recollection) “it might be possible to accept the BoM as some sort of divine fiction (such as an extended parable or allegory) and still have it be scripture, but not the the First Vision, the Angel Moroni, and the Gold Plates. For the BoM to be scripture, those have to be real. The BoM hangs not on its contents, but on the means of it coming forth.”

    No one really talks about that, but that’s the real issue. Non-LDS scholars are likely, whether consciously or not, more troubled by that aspect.

  32. [Just to make things somewhat clearer, to my recollection, Terryl L. Givens made it clear he accepts the historical reality of the events in the BoM]

  33. Ivan makes an excellent point. But there is another: if you listen to the podcast with Coe (very long) and then read Sorenson’s letter to Coe, you come to one very clear conclusion: Coe doesn’t really understand very well what the Book of Mormon actually says. To use one example, take the first point from Sorenson’s letter:

    Coe says: The Jaredites “didn’t really survive terribly long.” [Part 1, 18:30]

    The Jaredites “go back, what, something like four, five hundred BC.” [Part 1, 28:00]

    Anybody with a cursory knowledge of the Jaredites knows that they go back to the time of the Tower, or probably 2500 BC and lasted until 400 or 500 BC, or more than 2,000 years. So, Coe’s statement shows extraordinary ignorance about what the BoM actually says. But if you read through Sorenson’s letter there are more than a dozen such examples. So, Trevor, to sum up, I am struck, whenever I hear from one of the critics, how little they actually know about the Book of Mormon before they go about criticizing it. Although it is exasperating to hear from the critics, my testimony is usually strengthened by listening to people like this because they are setting up obvious straw men rather than taking on the subject matter squarely, honestly and knowledgeably.

  34. “The BoM hangs not on its contents, but on the means of it coming forth.”

    And because of that non-LDS scholars simply will not be looking for BoM evidence in mesoamerica. While that may not be a bad thing per se it’s sad to think that mountains of BoM evidence might be hiding from them in plain sight. Oh, the irony.

  35. It doesn’t matter how much work Sorenson has had peer-reviewed. He doesn’t get a free pass. This needs to be peer-reviewed as well.

  36. BTW, Geoff, I should note that I’m not being ‘convinced’ by non-believers about this. I should have made that more clear, since it may have sounded as though I’ve been listening to Coe. 😉

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